Online Learning – What Is It and How Does It Work?

Rachel Maltese
Updated September 22 2020
young woman taking an online learning class on her laptop at home
Rachel Maltese
Updated September 22 2020

There are lots of reasons online learning continues to grow in popularity.  These include advances in technology, global opportunities for learning and collaboration, the challenges presented by in-person education in the COVID-19 era, and accessibility advantages. Because of these factors and more, online learning continues to be a growth area for many universities and K-12 schools.

What Is Online Learning?

Online learning – also known as remote learning, virtual learning, e-learning, or distance learning – allows students and teachers to use technology to have a classroom experience without necessarily visiting a classroom. This type of learning is facilitated by the internet and is great for addressing lots of different needs.


But online learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution – not for schools and universities, not for teachers and professors, and not for students. Rather it’s a collection of digital options designed to replace and/or augment traditional classroom activities. With the right tools and a little bit of planning, lectures, discussions and group projects can all be a part of online learning. Online learning technologies can also facilitate homework, learning evaluation, and testing.

How Does Online Learning Work?

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Schedule Formats

In general, there are two main types of online learning – synchronous and asynchronous.


Synchronous refers to classes and other learning activities that happen in real time. For example, a student attends a lecture while the professor is giving it and is able to ask questions and receive answers during the event. This type of online learning is generally appealing to individuals and institutions that are looking to recreate the traditional classroom experience virtually.


Asynchronous refers to classes and other learning activities that take place at times most convenient to individual participants. For example, a student might have a week to review a pre-recorded lecture. After watching the lecture, they may post their thoughts about the lecture to a classroom discussion group. Later, the student might receive comments from both the instructor and others enrolled in the class.


Most courses presented as online learning experiences are conducted by providing a combination of synchronous and asynchronous content and participation. Additionally, many courses combine both in-person and online learning. Mixing and matching types of learning increases the flexibility and accessibility of education on an ongoing basis.


Class Components for Online Learning

Online learning doesn’t just mean students watching a class over video chat or participating in an email thread about a reading. Online classes need to be designed with the same level of attention to detail as traditional classes and/or need to be adapted to the online format. Online classes often include a range of components. For example:

  • A central repository of administrative information including course syllabus and schedule
  • An online location from which to access and download readings, lectures, and assignments in a range of formats including video, audio, and text.
  • Instructions and, if necessary, tools for submitting assignments
  • Interactive content that can include lean-forward video content such choose-your-own-adventure learning paths and hotspots, as well as quizzes and exams
  • Virtual classroom spaces that allow for asynchronous course discussion and an online venue for working on group projects as appropriate
  • A way for students to receive and review feedback for their work – this includes grading and comments from their instructor.
  • Resource lists of school support services, such as academic advising, tutoring, disability accommodation processes, and technical support.

Some of these resources may already be in place through your school or university’s Learning Management System (LMS). Online video-based learning options can be integrated with your existing LMS so that your courses can go online without reinventing the wheel, and students can avoid having to learn entirely new systems to take online classes.


Virtual classroom products allow instructors to prepare their rooms in advance with class-specific resources, tools, breakout rooms, andbranding . Instructors might upload presentations, documents, videos, or other materials to use and share during the class. They could also take advantage of tools like whiteboards, shared notes, and chats as well as the ability to allow students to answer questions live and discuss amongst themselves. The idea is to replicate all the best aspects of an in-person classroom, plus a few extras. This gives students a virtual learning experience that’s a consistent, well-thought out experience rather than a hastily slapped together solution to a complex problem.


The online learning experience can be further enhanced through tools that allow video-based email communication and automated captioning. In fact, captioning should not just be considered a disability accommodation, but according to recent studies on their utility, an enhancement that can benefit all students enrolled in online classes.


Technology for Online Learning

Technology, of course, is part of what makes online learning possible. And there are considerations for institutions, instructors, and students.


While universities and K-12 schools must acquire and implement the technology that will enable instructors to produce course content and allow classes to meet remotely, the technology issue stretches beyond the institutional setting. Students and faculty must have the right resources available to them in the locations from which they’ll be engaging in online learning or teaching.


At its most basic, this means a computer, a stable internet connection, electricity, and a place from which to work – even if that means the kitchen table. Ideally, the computer will have enough power and bandwidth to effectively view video, and in most cases, students should also be able to respond to and engage with content but text, audio, and video as well. This means computers equipped with microphones and video cameras.


Because mobile phones are essentially an all-in-one device, many students use them to do at least some of their online coursework, but this is not necessarily ideal for completing text heavy assignments. Could a student successfully complete an online course only using their mobile phone? Probably. But it would be challenging and time consuming in many cases.


While having access to a computer for online learning may not seem like a particularly high bar, you should keep in mind that computers can be a significant expense for many students and universal access should not be assumed. Remember that use of mobile phones for online learning? That’s not just about convenience. It reflects the reality that for low-income students, phones are often the only reliable online access they have. Making sure students have meaningful computer access is a critical issue in education.


In fact, many households may have only one computer and some students primarily access computers at a library or university computer lab. Access to an appropriate computer for online learning may be a limited resource for some, especially if they are in an area dealing with stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Households with multiple students may mean that some of your learners are competing for computer time to access classes. In these cases, providing asynchronous online learning options, is especially important.

Making Online Learning Successful

In addition to having the best technology to produce content and give students a great course experience, making sure that online learning is successful for your institution is often a function of making sure students know what to expect and what their responsibilities are.


For students who are used to traditional classrooms, online learning may be an adjustment and seem to require a new-level of discipline and self-directed planning and work. Offering students the support they need to effectively manage their schedules, workloads, and deadlines is an important part of online learning implementation. Peer support as well as virtual office hours from instructors go hand-in-hand with having the right tools to make the online learning experience a successful.



From technology to best practices to identifying student needs, online learning is constantly evolving. Its up to your institution customize the essentials of online learning to suit your students, instructors, and curriculum.